nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
December 7, 2011
Okay: let me issue some disclaimers first. I’m Irish-American. I was raised Catholic. One of my best friends is Irish, and still IS Catholic. One of my uncles nearly became a priest, as did one of my friends. I’ve thus entered into discussions about priest abuse scandals with some defensive hackles raised, and thus too did I attend the first night of James X.
And was still won over.
Written and performed entirely and solely by Gerard Mannix Flynn, the show is the story of the “James X” of the title—a middle-aged former victim of abuse at the hands of the reform schools and juvenile detention centers he was shuffled through during a rough Dublin childhood. Years later, he’s been called to court again—as a witness, rather than the accused—but he doesn’t quite trust the courts, he tells us first. And as we learn from his tale, he has good reason to mistrust.
But this is far from a litany of horrors. The language is full of a poet’s flights of fancy, and Flynn’s rubbery face flexes and shifts along with it—wrinkling in giggles at his own jokes, or crumpling in pain at his own anguish, puckering up in prim disapproval as he imitates the judges sending him to prison or cocking a wry smile as he even quotes Bono (it makes sense in context). Director Gabriel Byrne has wisely stripped the set of any detail, save for a chair and a single small sign; Flynn’s performance is front and center. Over the course of an hour-and-a-half, we’re introduced to a true, lively, unique individual.
Which is why when that individual finally testifies to his abuse at the very end—in a poker face and a monotone, speaking in clinical detail—it comes as a complete sucker punch. The cheek and the fancy have been his own form of self-defense, he tells us—“my Jewish humor,” he jokes—but you wish such fancy had been turned to a better end. The specifics of the abuse he details are, sadly, all too familiar; but hearing them after we meet James underscores the horror of those acts on his young life. And yet, finally and baldly speaking out seems to bring James peace at the very end, and at long last. “This is not my shame, any more,” he says. “It never was….it is yours, and today I am giving it back.”
Ultimately this seems to be the thrust of the play—rather than making these cases an argument about religion itself, as some are wont, the play reminds us that people like James are individuals who were wronged, and who have lived with shame for far too long, and who deserve redress.